I watch: a look at the data harvesters

  • Opinion
  • April 1, 2015
  • Keith Pinney
I watch: a look at the data harvesters

I was listening to the radio the other day. You know, the old kind in the car … the wireless. That kind of passive content consumption was the way we used to ‘stumble upon’ things, before meticulously organising our preferences into self-curated lists. Lazy yes, one-way non-dialogue yes, but also pleasantly easy.

Anyway, after this mindless channel-sifting, I happened upon a discussion between a self-confessed ‘techspert’ and the journalist-du-jour ruminating on the Apple Watch’s impending launch. Apple are (ahem) genius at getting the pre-release banter going and greasing the wheels of PR months ahead of a product drop as we all know.

The conversation took a logical turn toward the health benefits of said i-device, but then came a rather interesting and somewhat sinister diversion. It was a moment that reminded me of a chat not so long ago. OK maybe five years ago, with a colleague who had referred to Facebook as “Big Brother with a smiley face”. More on that topic separately.

After the usual 'who’ll buy it, how much battery life does it have and what’s the point?' kind of banter, the topic shifted to data. Specifically where all the data harvested from watch users huffing and puffing up and down the stairs goes to, who owns it, accesses it and what could it be used for.

Whether a fitness junkie or just trying to shed a few, the user benefits are all bound up in how the data Apple collects is relayed back to the wearer, for their own benefit and self improvement. Haptically even! I mean, given it is all your exerted physical effort that made the data in the first place, surely it’s yours?

In truth no. You will sign away all rights to whatever zeroes and ones are collected on your behalf, but don’t worry, you’ve already done this when you signed up for iTunes years ago.

On the good side, this will no doubt inspire all kinds of apps to be created or new services that might be developed to help wearers the world over reach their fitness goals.

But what if that data becomes incredibly valuable? Say to someone like an insurance company who might find paying for it or ‘licensing’ it incredibly profitable. Likewise for Apple, your data ‘proprietor’, this could also be a very lucrative new revenue stream. Terabyte upon terabyte of up-to-the-second knowledge about the state of the world’s health.

Company X for example, might be able to profile types of wearers, create or customise health insurance plans for specific groups of customers based on trending patterns or population insights. Maybe shift and adjust premiums based on what the data tells them in real-time. That would be good right? You’ve got nothing to hide after all.

But what if it gets to a point where in order to get that better insurance deal, you might be required to submit your data, have it done so in such a way that it correlates with what is on record about you. Make sure you really are surfing, not couch-surfing.

I mean this accessory will not only always know where you are in space and time (like the Tardis); it will know your vitals and whether you’re stationary, moving or napping. That data flies back and forth with your unique identifier and, of course, it’s paired to your iPhone (and your account). We’ll also know what you were listening to or watching at the time too.

Or go a little further. At a certain age, you might be required to submit your X years of data to said provider in order to qualify for insurance. If you don’t, you might end up having to pay dearly for the privilege or, conversely, go to a cheaper re-seller with a much higher risk.

It might be that you will have to invest in such a device for employers to vet your suitability for a particular job or, if you can’t afford one, have one ‘provided for you’.

Now, you are into the territory of a passive surveillance culture that can transform highly personal data into a highly valuable commodity. Oh wait, hang on, that brings me back to Facebook. Nope … another time.

I don’t want to get too far into Philip K. Dickian dystopian futures, but very quickly, you get a picture of how what might seem to be an innocent use of something for good can end up with a rather more nefarious endgame if not checked.

Also, the discussion wasn’t suggesting that Apple would wilfully on-sell data in a reckless manner, or whether it would indeed ever sell it at all. But the point remains we live in the immediate gratification age and to sate our desires, we unwittingly and freely on-sell our own deep digital personas to we know not who. For free.

And this isn’t new. The data ‘Dracula’ has already been invited over the threshold ages ago (well, say five years ago) and comes and goes at will..constantly winging our geographic mobile data back around the globe to distant, dark data-centres.

Wearables aren’t really new either. We’ve had fibits, Fuelbands and the like for a while, some have succeeded and some have not, but the enormous power in centralising all of this harvested data and actually doing something with it on an enterprise level has barely been tapped.

All you have to do is put it on your wrist, the rest ... is future.

Then again, after all, you could just wear a watch and go for a stroll.

  • Keith Pinney is a senior strategic planner at FCB.

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